Stephen R.L. Clark’s "anarcho-conservatism"

I’m on vacation, visiting the wife’s ancestral homeland of Indiana. Blessedly free of online distractions for the most part. Hence the relative dearth of posting.

But I have been reading a really interesting book by philosopher Stephen R.L. Clark called The Political Animal: Biology, Ethics, and Politics. Clark has written on a variety of topics, from animal rights to natural theology. He seems to be a Christian Platonist of some sort, but also with a strong bent toward understanding human beings as parts of nature and continuous in a strong sense with other animals.

The present work attempts to look at political and ethical issues in light of seeing human beings as quite literally political animals. Clark arrives at what he calls “Aristotelian anarchism.” Contrary to the Hobbesian view that posits the necessity of a strong state to keep us from a perpetual state of war, Clark’s Aristotelianism sees humans as social animals who naturally form communities.

Hobbesians, including most modern liberals, justify the state on the ground that it is what ideally stiuated rational agents would choose. But this, Clark thinks, masks the fact that the state is essentially brigandage writ large. No one actually consents to the existence of rule by the few over the many, in any sense that would seem to be morally significant. And when political philosophers argue that they would choose it if they were “truly rational,” what they often seem to mean by “rational” is “good liberals like us.”

Of course, even if the state isn’t legitimate in the sense that any of us have ever actually consented to being ruled by other men, the ever-present fear is that it’s the only thing that stands between us and social chaos. Besides the obvious point that, given the historical record of governments in terms of murder, theft, and oppression, the cure may well be worse than the disease, Clark points out that state power may yet be intrinsically wrong:

No one is to enslave anyone, nor coerce anyone except to prevent such enslavement or absolute coercion. No one, in particular, is to force another to do what he/she does not him/herself consider right: that is, to treat another source of action merely as material. … State power is born in conquest, not in free contract, and has no more right to its prey than any other robber band. (p. 33)

The statist assumption is that top-down control is the only means of establishing social harmony, but the anarchist’s claim is that the “peace” provided by coercion is actually just war in another form, and that, moreover, there are other means by which social order arises.

Like other anarchists, Clark distinguishes two means of securing social cooperation: the military (or political) means, and the economic means. The former uses coercion to compel behavior and its use tends to result in a caste of rulers who lord it over the rest of us. The latter includes free exchange, gift-giving, and other positive-sum forms of social interaction. The anarchist’s political agenda, Clark says, is not to impose some utopian blueprint for the perfect society, but to replace the military means of civil association with non-coercive methods.

Non-coercive anarchism (which is to say, just anarchism) rests … upon a method of civil association, not on a perceived goal. That method, the organization of the civil means, has no one obvious outcome, and to that extent the critics are correct to see that anarchists have no definite political goal, no ‘good society’ the far side of catastrophe. Certain possible futures are rejected (as imperial consolidation, bureaucratic world state, military nationalism), but the anarchist methodology is compatible with as many more, including the free market, communitarian federalism and even ‘fractured feudalism’ [i.e. competing and partly overlapping sources of authority]…. (p. 86)

Following Jefferson and Kropotkin, Clark seems to favor a decentralization of political power to the most local feasible level. He rejects, however, revolution as a means to replacing the military or political form of association with peaceful and non-coercive methods. Even Gandhi’s “non-violent” revolution, he points out, resulted in no small amount of bloodshed, and the Indian state that replaced British colonialism arguably suppressed liberty in a number of ways, not the least of which being the incorporation of unwilling minorities into the Indian state.

Instead, Clark adopts what he calls “anarcho-conservatism,” an anti-revolutionary commitment to expanding the organization of the civil or economic means of social cooperation, side-by-side with, and gradually replacing coercive means. He concedes that such a conservative stance risks being insufficiently sensitive to present injustice, but argues that change which grows organically out of a people’s past is preferable to the kind of sharp break with it that revolution often brings.
Nevertheless, he admits that the anarcho-conservative requires a certain kind of patience:

and that may be easiest for those who can trust in God. If the God of justice will bring the Empire down, and we, God’s people, will be there to see it fall (even if I, in this mortal body, never do), we can afford to wait, and not attempt to rule the world by force. (p. 90)

This last quote reminds me of John Howard Yoder’s argument that Christians aren’t called to make sure that history comes out right. That’s God’s business. The job of Christians is to be faithful to a certain way of life in the midst of the dawning of the new creation and the death-throes of the old. And certainly non-coercion looms large in Yoder’s vision of what the Christian life is about.

Clark does recognize that there can be a just war, but he sees this as essentially a defensive action, and not one that should be resorted to in order to bring in some glorious new social order. And, in fact, the support of wars or revolutions is so inherently dangerous to the preservation of the civil means of order, they require a very high degree of justification:

Just revolutions, in sum, are theoretically possible, on the same terms as just wars. But there is very strong reason to be suspicious of any candidates for that high status. Certainly neither war nor revolution can be just that does not revert as soon as possible to the civil means, to peace. Certainly the very establishment of a war machine will almost always make that return less likely. The means constitute and modify the end, as Gandhi saw. All would-be revolutionaries need to ask themselves which programme is likelier to succeed: armed revolution, with its ensuing injuries to innocents, its creation of another brigand power, or else some unsung, unrebellious organisation of the civil and economic means alongside or out of the way of politics? (p.88)

I think this is key to the argument. Attending to the means, not just the ends, however laudable, we’re seeking to realize, is necessary for any just social order. Politics often adverts to ends-justifies-the means reasoning. But the anarchist, like the pacifist, is the fly in the ointment, reminding us to scrutinize the means we choose. It’s much easier, in some ways, to coerce people than to earn their free consent. But treating them as ends in themselves, rather than material for our schemes, demands it.

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5 thoughts on “Stephen R.L. Clark’s "anarcho-conservatism"”

  1. You just had to tell us about that AFTER we had given out our Christmas lists, didn’t you? Oh, well. Now I know where my Christmas cash will be going if I receive any.

    Sounds very promising. Only I’m afraid that I already agree with every line, so it won’t advance my views one bit.

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